A longtime fan to Ricky Rudd: Thanks for the memories

11/27/2007 - NASCAR

For a man with so few -- if any -- frills, it was the perfect reaction, neither nostalgic nor tearful but instead absolute and direct.

Thirty-two years and it was over. Truly over. Ricky Rudd had run his final race.

He emerged from the Snickers Ford at Homestead-Miami Speedway, grinning sheepishly. His illustrious NASCAR career had just ended with an unceremonious 21st-place finish, one lap down, in the Ford 400. His wife waited outside the window with a smile and an embrace.

A pair of reporters waited. Just two. He was asked to express his emotions: Sadness? Emptiness? Fulfillment? Amazement? Was he reminiscing during those final few laps, thinking back over a career that produced 23 victories in 906 starts?

Not especially. In fact, not at all.

"There were two or three spots ahead of us -- I was thinking about how to get those three spots," he said, smiling in acknowledgment of an unexpected response that, by all means, shouldn't have been unexpected.

"That's just the racer in me. I'm sure I'll reflect on the way home. It's a little different deal. Like a kid in school and school's out, and I have the whole summer to go play. That's the way I look at it."

Rudd said he's ready to go sit in a rocking chair for a while, that his season had so frustrated him he was just glad it was over. He'll miss the people, the friends he's made along the way. He knows it'll take some getting used to, but he looks forward to his life's next chapter.

Put on the spot to choose the defining moment of his career, Rudd chose his victory in the 1997 Brickyard 400. He loves that track, and he won in a car he owned. That will never happen again.

"It's not really one special event," said NASCAR's "Iron Man," who holds the Cup record for consecutive starts (788). "It's the people and the drivers -- the best [drivers] in the world."

I grew up in Virginia, and we Virginians love our native sons. So Ricky Rudd is a driver I've followed for most of my life. I was pumped when he signed with Robert Yates Racing the first time. He'd be in my favorite car ever -- the No. 28 Texaco/Havoline Ford. My son plays with a Ricky Rudd No. 28 die-cast every day. It's a piggy bank, actually. Love it. (Forgive me for straying off on a tangent...)

It's a little different deal. Like a kid in school and school's out, and I have the whole summer to go play. That's the way I look at it.

-- Ricky Rudd

Rudd was among the toughest drivers in NASCAR history, and that was always so admirable, so gladiator-like, to me.

There was the duct-tape episode in 1984. He'd wrecked terribly in the Busch Clash, and his eyes were so badly swollen he duct-taped them open to run the Daytona 500 the following week. Oh, and he won in Richmond, Va., the week after that.

His victory at Martinsville Speedway in 1998 exemplified that legendary toughness. He literally fell out of the car in Victory Lane, suffering from heat exhaustion.

Now Rudd rides off into retirement, quietly, just how he'd want it.

But after 32 years he deserves outward recognition and the utmost appreciation. In a time when this or that driver is disliked for his tactics or tongue, no one ever says a cross word about Ricky Rudd.

He's a racer to the core and commands respect from competitors and fans alike.

That is his legacy. Old school. No frills. Tougher 'n woodpecker lips.

Enjoy that rockin' chair, old man, and thanks for the memories.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.